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Children and Parents - House of Lords maiden speech

Wednesday 26th March 2003

On March 26th 2003 the Archbishop of Canterbury made his maiden speech in the House of Lords. This came during a debate on Lord Northbourne's motion "to call attention to the role of parents in providing for the needs of the nation's children in the 21st century and to the case for making available more encouragement and support for parents; and to move for Papers."

The full text of the Archbishop's speech follows.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for giving us the opportunity of so timely a debate – a debate that recognises, as we needs must recognise at present, a major cultural shift. The time was when the family appeared as a safe and stable piece of territory, surrounded by the ups and downs of public life. Now it is often the family itself that appears fragile and in need of support from public attention and public investment.

The word "parenting", which has been thrown around already in this afternoon's discussion, is in some ways admittedly a barbarism. As somebody recently said, it would be nice to know what the corresponding duties of "childing" involved. But we cannot do without that. However much it may suggest an unhappy replacement of relation by contract, there are questions here about skills and the management, nurture and development of those skills, which have become a matter of increasing urgency for all those reasons which your Lordships have already heard amply set out.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, rightly referred to the weight of multiple disadvantage that presses upon many families these days. I agree wholeheartedly with the identification of that problem and see its effects not least in the challenges that face many parents in the management of stress, anger and conflict. Much of the most important work that can be done in the field of parenting skills is in addressing these issues.

At the same time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, has reminded us, we face a culture of work that is in many ways inimical to the values we wish to develop. It is, I believe, a fact that fathers of young children work, statistically, the longest hours among our working population. Our attention has already been drawn to this. It is a reminder to us that, while it is perfectly right to think of work as one of the more reliable routes out of poverty, that can only be true in a constructive way and in the long run if our culture of work becomes more humane and less pressurised. I hope that that, too, will be part of our considerations in this area. We are not simply talking about the multiple disadvantage that weighs so heavily on economically less advantaged members of society; we are also looking at the burdens borne by those who are counted prosperous in the world's eyes.

It is because of the increasing awareness of these pressures and conflicts that the level and quality of voluntary contribution to this situation has developed so dramatically in recent years. The noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, and the noble Lord, Lord Wright, have drawn our attention to one of the most distinguished essays in voluntary assistance here. I am particularly glad to hear the work of Margaret Harrison referred to, as not only her practical work, but also her research, have proved a benchmark for the understanding of these issues in recent years. It is an area where the life of faith communities and the Christian Churches has become much involved in recent years.

The Mothers' Union has been running a parenting skills programme that, I believe, is currently educating 220 people in parenting skills, of whom nearly a quarter now have professional accreditation. Christian groups have been prominent in many other fields here. There are several names that might be called to mind: FLAME, the Family Life and Marriage Education network; Care for the Family; and the delightfully and aptly named Fathers Direct. I do not believe that it is quite true yet that you can have a mail order arrangement to provide a male parent, but this is a very important contribution to precisely those areas that previous speakers in your Lordships' House have mentioned in this afternoon's debate.

Unprecedented levels of skill and attention have been devoted to this in the voluntary sector. This is where a note of, if not caution, at least concern might need to be sounded. It is always welcome when statutory encouragement and assistance are given to voluntary work in areas such as this. But, as many of your Lordships will realise better than I, the promise of statutory encouragement and assistance can sometimes be something of a Trojan horse. The armed warriors inside brandish their weapons of accreditation and accountability in ways that may be perfectly defensible and yet which create their own problems in discouraging volunteers. Some of the effects of this are already visible in some of those voluntary organisations that I have mentioned.

We need some overview of the situation, able to balance the appropriate level of statutory involvement with a proper flexibility about the volunteer and his or her role. It is in relation to that question of an overview that I make the first of two concluding points that I wish to leave with your Lordships. This has to do with a question that has been ventilated more than once in recent decades. Legislation affecting families and children crosses a wide number of departmental boundaries in government. From time to time, the cry has been raised that it is perhaps time to see some co-ordinating structure that will have that overview of the needs of families and children, which is able to interpret departments to one another and interpret the common mind of government departments to the public at large and turn it into effective action. I hope that that challenge to a co-ordinating role within government will not go unheard.

If I may refer to it in your Lordships' House, the experience in Wales of the development of the role of the Children's Commissioner has again reminded us how very important it can be to have some figure or figures who have that broader role and that broader vision and remit in their work.

Many more things could be said on this subject. I look forward to hearing them from other speakers in the debate, not least the noble Lord, Lord Carey, my distinguished predecessor. But one concluding reflection, which is perhaps particularly timely, is in relation to the way in which faith communities are capable of collaboration in the delivery of parenting skills. Experience in urban south Wales suggested that collaboration between the Churches and the local Muslim communities could break down many barriers of understanding. I suggest to your Lordships that that area is well worthy of further development at a time when relations between faith communities so need reinforcement, cementing and solidifying.

It is a sad fact, and this debate will remind us of it, as many others will, that it is not always shared aspirations that give us the deepest sense of our common humanity-shared problems do that too. The cross-boundary problems affecting faith communities, such as the difficulties of parenting and the management of adolescents, have sometimes proved a major spur to better and fuller co-operation between those faith communities that have a particular investment in the health and nurture of family life.

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